by Stephanie Williams
I was 19 years old and already exhausted with and bitter at life. I was a typical college student of the day. Working two mediocre jobs to pay rent while relying on left over financial aid to eat. A typical week for me at the time involved working 6-8 hours shifts as a bank teller, followed by 4 hour shifts at a local department store, while squeezing in classes anywhere I could. Most days, I dragged myself to early morning classes before the first job and scarfed down fast food to and from classes on lunch breaks or between my day and night jobs. My car was a heap of crumpled up sacks and always smelled of stale French fries. Then, seeing as how I was an English major, I pulled an all-nighter at least once a week to write. Of course, it was all shit.
Everything was, or felt like it at the time. I was always on the go, doing a million and one things, and not a single one well. Life seemed like something I needed to get through, though I never really thought about through to … what exactly. Hindsight shouts the cliché about not really living, only surviving. In contrast, it whispers Morgan Freeman’s line in Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy living or get busy dying.” I had the busy part down; I just needed to pick an outcome.
On a sunny Thursday in June 1995, someone else picked for me.
I remember that I’d been late everywhere that day. At the tail end of an all-night writing session, I’d dozed off and slept through my alarm. Slicking my hair into a low ponytail, dousing myself in deodorant and perfume, I opted to skip the shower. Seeing a relatively unwrinkled dress draped over my desk chair, I yanked it on, unsure of when I’d worn it last. Was it last week? Yesterday? Still, I skidded late into my morning class, avoiding the judgmental glare emanating from the professor. Seemingly unable to make my body move any faster, I pulled myself into the bank a good five minutes after my shift was supposed to begin. I distinctly remember gathering my defenses as I walked in to the building, ready to strike should anyone comment on my tardiness. But no one said a word.
Somehow I made it through my shift without collapsing, getting fired or losing someone’s deposit. And I was rewarded with a glorious reprieve. My afternoon class had been canceled leaving me with an unexpected break before my night job. I think I might have smiled.
Back at my apartment, I yanked the dress over my head and draped it back where I’d found it that morning. I fell into bed in nothing but my bra and panties and grabbed the clock from the nightstand to set an hour alarm. It never went off. I awoke with a start, glaring at the traitorous clock, though I’d no doubt set it wrong, and quickly redressed. Thankfully, I was just going down the road a little ways, so I’d surely make it on time.
I crested the hill of the divided four-lane near my apartment and began to coast downward. There were no other cars on my side. I glanced to my right and saw a man, clad in running shorts and a white T-shirt, jogging down the hill. I passed him as I accelerated down the hill. I think the light was yellow when I was coasting and turned red before I reached it. I either zoned out or actually fell asleep. But the crash woke me up.
My little four door Geo crumpled as the sportier yellow car ricocheted away. I found out later that the other driver was uninjured, save a bruise on his hip from the safety belt buckle. I was not wearing a safety belt. The impact caused me to hit the windshield with my forehead. I would have been thrown from the car had the steering wheel not caught my knee. I collapsed back into my seat grabbing my knee and screaming in pain. The driver door flung open to reveal the jogger panting. He pulled his T-shirt over his head and slammed it onto my forehead, forcing my head back against the seat. The sting of his sweat-soaked shirt pressed against my open wound burned. My eyes were cloudy, from tears, my own blood, sweat dripping from his strong hand still pressing firm against my head. But I could see the starred-out windshield, decorated with chunk of my scalp from which long strands of brown hair hung.
“Did … my head … do that?” I strained to ask between sobs.
“You’re going to be okay,” said the voice attached to the sweaty shirt. And I knew he was telling the truth.
Paramedics pushed their way in, tossing the shirt from my forehead to the passenger side floorboard. They moved quickly to assess my injuries and extract me from the car. I wasn’t pinned but my kneecap was shattered and, since I let out an ear-piercing scream with every moment, moving me from the seat to a stretcher proved a little complicated. A nice lady, who’d been waiting to turn behind the car I hit, witnessed the whole thing and retrieved my belongings from my car. As the paramedics worked, she told me she’d follow behind to the hospital. In the chaos and pain, I lost sight of the jogger.
I kept asking for him, but no one answered.
I was rushed to the nearest hospital where they stitched up my forehead (and scalp hole) into a macabre-looking masterpiece of stretched skin and seams. Then I was taken to surgery so they could reconstruct my knee, held in place by pins that would set off airport alarms (I learned the hard way) until the bones grew back together. In all, I spent a week in the hospital and about 8 more on crutches. I guess you could say I was lucky.
The nice lady had waited with me at the hospital until family arrived. I asked her about the jogger; I wanted to thank him for being there for me. She said she didn’t know who I was talking about. She never saw a jogger. I remember saying, “Well, you must have seen his t-shirt in the floorboard when you grabbed my purse.” But she just shook her head no.
When the police interviewed me, I asked them about the jogger too. They told me that they’d talked to several witnesses but did not know of someone who fit the description I’d given.
Shortly after I was discharged from the hospital, I went to the junkyard to clean out my car; it had been totaled in the accident. I told my friend, who offered to take me, that I had stuff in the trunk and glovebox that I didn’t want to lose. But, the truth was, I wanted the t-shirt. I don’t really know why. I just felt some unexplainable desire to be connected to that jogger. Since I had no idea who he was, the t-shirt was my only hope. As my friend slowed to a park next to my crumpled up vehicle, I couldn’t help but shiver. From the outside, it sure didn’t look like someone could have walked away so easily. I pulled myself out of my friend’s car onto my crutches and hobbled over to the passenger door of what had been my life. I opened the passenger door and my eyes immediately searched the floorboard area. Fast food wrappers, empty cups and stale French fries were all I saw. I maneuvered myself to sit in the seat, twisting and turning to look around the entirety of the inside of the car. I opened the glovebox and grabbed all the papers. I searched every cubby-hole and almost fell on my face checking under the seats. As a last resort, I hobbled to the trunk, finding nothing but some old tennis shoes and a few books. My friend watched silently as I gave the inside a second look and noticed my confused gaze.
“Is something missing?” he asked.
“Yes … well, I don’t know … I just thought …” My voice trailed off as a peace came over me, more comforting than I’d ever known. And I knew who the jogger was. And I knew I didn’t need a t-shirt to be connected to him. All I needed was to want him.
Sometimes when life gets heavy and I get caught up in the stress, I forget what happened that day. But then I look in the mirror at my forehead, at the part of me that once wasn’t there, and I remember.